Artifact Coffee (1500 Union Ave.
,  235-1881,
) is at once comforting and amusing. It's fun to see the staff-many dressed in loose cotton dresses or trousers with suspenders, as if they've just walked out of a John Steinbeck novel or an episode of
-working the precisely calibrated controls of a La Marzocco commercial espresso maker. If, after perusing the menu, printed in the font of a vintage Royal typewriter that badly needs a new ribbon (maybe the same typewriter displayed on a nearby sideboard?), you realize that your laptop needs charging, never fear: Pop an embedded block out of the rough-hewn communal table to reveal a three-prong outlet.
These incongruities simply add to the charm. Artifact, the energetic younger sibling of nearby Woodberry Kitchen, wears its passions on its homespun sleeve. The place represents the Baltimore of community gardens and home-brewed beer, of young spirits who crave single-origin chocolate from South America, but wouldn't dream of eating beef raised more than 20 miles away.
Owner Spike Gjerde remains true to his farm-to-table ideals here, with seasonal foodstuffs from the farmers market crafted into mostly familiar dishes with prices that seem to maintain fairly tight margins-when you consider not only the quality of ingredients but the labor intensity of things like homemade English muffins, jam from local fruits, and pickled snap peas.
If Woodberry is reserved for a special meal, its festive vibe and wood smokiness reminiscent of a wedding in a barn, Artifact is the picnic annex, pared down to share the fun in a more accessible and everyday way.
Occupying a small wing of the stone Union Mill building (a former sailcloth factory, recently renovated to house offices of nonprofits as well as a smattering of apartments), the space is a mix of rustic and industrial, with barn lights suspended from the high, beamed ceiling and exposed ductwork. Wooden chairs are purposefully distressed, and the open stainless-steel and white-tile kitchen is surrounded by a divider clad in unfinished beadboard.
Early in the day-beginning at 7
on weekdays, 9
on weekends-the place is focused on beverages, mostly coffee, with nicely edited food options. The "morning kitchen" menu usually has a couple of egg sandwiches-cheddar and sausage or tomato or scrapple ($5.50). The steel-cut oats have the hearty flavor of nutty grain and come with a drizzle of heavy cream and maple syrup, as well as seasonal fruit and pecans ($4). In the bakery case, what looks like a Pop-Tart is actually a flaky turnover filled with pumpkin cream and glazed in frosting.
The "day kitchen" kicks in at 11
, with offerings ranging from a coffee-rubbed pork sandwich ($12), open-face on a slice of sourdough topped with fried onions, to the sublime seasonal treat of heirloom beets, wild greens, and herb-seasoned mayo on sweet, steamed Boston brown bread studded with raisins ($10). There are peanut noodles ($9) tossed with sprouts, celery and cilantro, as well as a PB&J sandwich ($5), and homemade applesauce ($3) with cinnamon, nice options for young picky eaters.
In early December, Artifact began serving supper Wednesday through Sunday, a $29.50 fixed-price meal-three courses determined by the kitchen, served family-style, no reservations, BYOB. On a recent visit, we had the night's only option, choucroute, brought to our table in a heavy Dutch oven: thick slices of braised pork, pastrami, and bacon, hunks of sausage and small white potato halves, layered on sauerkraut. It's probably enough to say that my dining companion, who had previously no taste whatsoever for Baltimore's favorite fermented cabbage dish, came away a 'kraut devotee. I was once told that the best route to loving beer is to drink a cold one on a summer day after mowing the lawn. Likewise, sauerkraut should be married to fatty meat that absorbs the tart, inspiring adulation.
Diners were sparse that night, maybe due to the limited-and, at least that evening, less-than-conventional-menu, which is posted on the website each week. Indeed, this early gambit was certainly not for everyone (the previous week's offering was the ever-popular roasted chicken, and Southern stuffed ham was in the offing last weekend). There's talk of vegetarian options in the future.
Our meal began with parsnip soup, creamy and sweet, with bits of green apples, topped with diced kale, seared crisp. Dessert was an individual linzer torte to share (with some to take home), a thick, crumbly crust of ground nuts with raspberry filling, three scoops of house-made vanilla ice cream on the side.
Artifact's goal, according to a manager, is to be a community place, more affordable and casual than the mainstay-and it works. The staff is friendly in a gentle way; the guy at the counter might remember which coffee you ordered on your last visit. There's still a little confusion about service. Orders are taken at the counter, prompting long lines on weekends, with food and drinks delivered to your table (customers are identified by spice tins). You also don't want to be in too big a rush for your morning coffee, as even carryout orders are prepared one cup at a time, with a pour-over filter.
It may be that Artifact wants you to slow down a bit, to savor an age when men wore suspenders and typewriters were miraculous, time-saving devices, to linger over your Facebook page and check your email in a convivial and communal setting.
Artifact is open for breakfast and lunch weekdays 7
, Saturday and Sunday 9
, and for dinner Wednesday through Sunday starting at 5